Congress poised to deliver billions more in coronavirus relief
By STEPHANIE BEASLEY and SAM MINTZ
03/08/2021 10:06 AM ESTPresented by the Bipartisan Policy Center & U.S. Chamber of Commerce Editor’s Note: Weekly Transportation is a weekly version of POLITICO […]
Congress poised to deliver billions more in coronavirus relief
03/08/2021 10:06 AM EST
Presented by the Bipartisan Policy Center & U.S. Chamber of Commerce
Editor’s Note: Weekly Transportation is a weekly version of POLITICO Pro’s daily Transportation policy newsletter, Morning Transportation. POLITICO Pro is a policy intelligence platform that combines the news you need with tools you can use to take action on the day’s biggest stories. Act on the news with POLITICO Pro.
ALMOST THERE: Senate Democrats managed to pass President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package on Saturday without any Republican support and quite a bit of drama. The vote came after the Senate remained in session to hold a marathon of votes for more than 24 hours and following multiple renegotiations between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and moderates.
During the vote-a-rama leading up to passage, Republicans had indicated they would introduce a number of amendments aimed at slashing transportation funding from the bill, including several that would have cut relief money for transit agencies, Amtrak and airports. As it turned out, the only transportation amendment votes were on one from Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) to tweak transit formulas in the bill (moving funds away from big cities like New York), and one from Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.) that would have shifted money from state and local governments to surface transportation. Both of them were rejected on party-line votes.
The Senate version of the bill includes $200 million more for Amtrak than was included in the House version. It would also provide $30.5 billion for transit agencies, $14 billion to extend the airline payroll support program, $8 billion for airports and $3 billion for aviation manufacturers. It also adds an emergency paid leave fund for TSA employees that is similar to a leave program for FAA employees included in the bill.
What’s next: The bill now heads back to the House, which is expected to vote on the measure Tuesday.
HAPPY MONDAY: You’re reading Morning Transportation, your guide to what Washington’s doing on planes, trains, cars and everything that moves. We’re diving into covering the Biden administration, and MT would love to hear your tips, pitches and feedback about the next four years. Get in touch at [email protected] or @samjmintz.
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On the Hill
PRIORITY RAIL: The House Transportation Committee is holding a subcommittee hearing on the value of the rail industry on Wednesday, with the appropriate title of “Full Steam Ahead for Rail: Why Rail is More Relevant Than Ever for Economic and Environmental Progress.” It will be a chance for lawmakers to state their priorities on an industry that’s at the heart of the Biden administration’s infrastructure and climate plans, and it will also be the first time wielding the gavel for new rail subcommittee Chair Donald Payne (D-N.J.).
Witnesses: Shannon Valentine, Virginia’s secretary of transportation; Caren Kraska, president of the Arkansas and Missouri Railroad; Greg Regan, the recently elected president of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO; and Tom Williams, vice president at BNSF Railway.
ON INFRASTRUCTURE AND BIPARTISANSHIP: Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who led the crafting of a bipartisan surface transportation bill as chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee last year, is joining the chorus of Republican voices calling for Democrats to take a less partisan route on infrastructure than they did on Covid relief. He said on “Meet the Press“ on Sunday that Biden should look to his bill as a model, noting that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was one of those who voted for it in committee. "If they want to work with us, take up what Bernie Sanders and John Barrasso agreed to last year," Barrasso said. "That is the blueprint for infrastructure.“
Reminder: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has talked up that bill as an "encouraging exception" to partisanship on Capitol Hill.
Around the Agencies
BUTTIGIEG'S EQUITY PUSH: Buttigieg has made big promises about racial equity as a priority in his new role, but following through will be an immense challenge and a major test of the Biden administration's ability to break through ingrained Washington ways of doing business. Buttigieg recently told POLITICO that he hopes to take an “expansive and broad look at how to improve equity,” perhaps starting by hiring a more diverse and representative workforce. He also wants to resume including equity as a criterion in existing DOT grants — a practice that started under former DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx. But addressing inequities in the system will also require dismantling or retooling decades‘ worth of physical infrastructure and addressing less visible parts of DOT work, like setting standards for how roads are designed, Sam writes.
No easy feat: Foxx and others say they want to see the Biden administration and Congress create programs specifically for equity, which would be a step up from simply including it in grant criteria. There's also the question of how Buttigieg will flex his “soft power” at DOT to make changes that don’t require congressional approval — things like the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control devices, a behind-the-scenes but highly important piece of DOT's authority that governs how roads are designed across the country. “Technically it’s not a policy, but it has the force of law, because of the way it harmonizes standards for what all the different departments use,” Buttigieg said. “It’s a good example of a place that we need to consider with an equity lens.”
WORD CHOICE: The FAA may shift away from using gender-specific words for drones, like “unmanned aircraft” and “airman,” as it looks to help the agency and the industry attract more diversity to the field. The FAA recently asked its drone advisory panel to make recommendations on how it might use more gender-neutral language. The move is being applauded by panel members, which include industry trade groups and companies such as Amazon that have already been moving in that direction, as Stephanie reported Friday.
The mission: FAA drone integration office chief Jay Merkle said at a meeting last month that the agency would like to see the panel “take the lead in facilitating the adoption of gender-neutral language throughout the drone community” and in aviation generally. He also said that the FAA would be open to recommendations to revisit and possibly update the language in existing regulations. The FAA’s Federal Women’s Program also recommended the agency adopt more gender-neutral language in December, a spokesperson said. “The FAA is committed to being a leader in implementing strategies to promote inclusivity across the aviation community,” according to the spokesperson.
The big picture: National Air Traffic Controllers Association Executive Vice President Trish Gilbert, a member of FAA’s drone panel, said the use of non-gender-specific terms was an important conversation that was also happening at an international level at ICAO. A spokesperson for the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International said the group was also separately reexamining its use of “unmanned” and considering a name change, though nothing has yet been decided.
DRONE WISH LIST: The Commercial Drone Alliance sent a letter to DOT urging it to allow more commercial drones to deliver medical supplies, such as Covid vaccines, as well as other essential goods. Doing so would reduce “the need to bring more people to already crowded health centers, pharmacies, and commercial areas” and help ensure “equitable distribution in an environmentally responsible manner,” the group said. CDA also wants the FAA to approve low-altitude, beyond-visual-line-of-sight drone inspections of bridges, energy facilities, railroads and other critical infrastructure.
ENGINE FAILURE INVESTIGATION: The NTSB on Friday released an update on its investigation into last month’s engine failure of a United Airlines Boeing 777. The agency said its review of maintenance and inspection data for a fractured blade revealed that the blade had thermal acoustic inspections in 2014 and 2016. Inspection information from 2016 was reexamined in 2018 following a separate incident that, like this recent failure, involved a Boeing 777 with a Pratt & Whitney engine, according to the update. NTSB also said it plans to analyze the blade’s “chemical composition and microstructure near the fracture surface.”
ALSO: The FAA said it will launch an investigation after an American Airlines pilot had to shut down one engine of a Boeing 737 MAX over possible mechanical issues, Reuters reported. The possible issue was not related to the MCAS flight control system linked to two fatal 737 MAX crashes, American said.
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